Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Ripped from the headlines: Where do we draw the line?

Sandra Parshall

I know a woman who could be transferred to the pages of a novel exactly as she is, to become a marvelously twisted character. She would be a plausible killer because of her unmatched talent for holding a grudge and her relentless vindictiveness. She would make an even more believable victim because everyone who knows her longs to be rid of her.

I’ll probably use her in a book sooner or later. But regardless of how accurately I try to portray her, the minute she hits the page she’ll begin to morph into something else, a fictional woman. A character. She will live in a world the real woman has never known, and respond to events and pressures unique to the story she’s in. As the pages and scenes and chapters wear on, she will become less and less the real person I know and more a creation of my own imagination.

I was thinking about all this a few days ago while listening to Laura Lippman talk about her books, which she said were all inspired by actual events. When one book, What the Dead Know, was published, Laura felt she had to publicly acknowledge that the story was inspired by the disappearance of two young sisters in suburban Maryland in the 1970s. I’m not sure she had to address the issue at all. Children disappear every day. There have been other cases of young sisters disappearing together. At the time of the case Laura had in mind, the sisters’ disappearance was little known outside the Washington-Baltimore area where it happened. But what’s most important is that, other than the disappearance itself, her story had absolutely nothing in common with the actual events, or the lives of the real girls and their parents.

Today, of course, 24-hour cable TV would make the simultaneous disappearance of two young sisters an international story, and the whole world would hear about it, day after day, every hour on the hour. In far-flung locations, TV viewers would stare at photos of the smiling girls and grow teary-eyed when contemplating their probable fate. The voracious news machine would scoop up every scrap of information or gossip and put it on the air within minutes, without bothering to verify it. Crime stories, as reported on round-the-clock cable, can become so detailed and sensational that no writer’s imagination could envision anything to top them. Drawing inspiration from today’s news might mean laboring for a year on a story that will be stale by the time it appears in book form. Even if you change significant aspects of the crime and its solution, the story may still seem overly familiar to readers -- and the real people involved won’t look kindly on your creative endeavor.

The folks who put Law & Order’s “ripped from the headlines” shows on the air can snatch up a sensational story and turn it into fiction much faster than a novelist can, and an episode may go on the air while the horror of the real crime is still unbearably raw for the victims and their families. In a few cases, L&O has come up with its own version before the real crime was even solved. The “characters” are eerily like the real people, with no effort made to disguise them beyond name changes.

A recent Washington Post story – which you can read here -- reports that many people whose worst nightmares show up on L&O feel “blindsided and used” and find the experience, on top of the tragedy they’ve suffered, deeply disturbing. “We’re trying to heal,” said a man whose young son and housekeeper were murdered in a still-unsolved case, “and to have it constantly dredged up is painful.” No one from the program or network contacted the family or alerted them that the show would be aired. The older brother of the murdered boy called the program “sick.”

Law & Order and its spinoffs have used hundreds of real cases over the years, loudly advertising them as “Ripped from the headlines!” while simultaneously claiming that they’re pure fiction, depicting no actual person or event. Such a claim is usually enough to protect creative work from libel and slander charges, but that might be changing. Since 2004, L&O has been fighting a lawsuit over a program that aired in late 2003, and despite efforts to have the suit dismissed, it was recently cleared for trial. The eventual outcome could make a difference in the way television crime shows are written.

Will it make a difference to novelists? Combined with the over-exposure many crime stories receive now, would a judgment against Law & Order be enough to make writers stop combing the news columns and cable networks in search of inspiration? I almost hope so. Unless we have Laura Lippman’s ability to take the germ of a situation and turn it into something brilliantly original, maybe we’ll write better books if we stop trying so hard to be topical and rely on our imaginations to provide us with material.

I’ll go on using real people as the starting points for characters. I’ll probably put the awful woman I mentioned earlier in a book someday, but I know she'll be someone else, a fictional person, by the time I'm done. I hope no one ever reads something I’ve written and exclaims, “Oh my god, that’s me. She stole my life!” I don’t want that kind of guilt – and I don’t want the lawsuit.


Cait London said...

I'm glad you stepped out on this, and "raw" is the correct word. As writers, I think we can take a headline story, use it as a nugget for a different story, and surely manufacture enough creative elements to keep that story from being "raw" or sue-able.

Anonymous said...

I do research all the time, reading headlines and articles but my characters are purely my own, not even morphed (at least consciously) from real people. Does that mean that no one could read a future book and not see themselves in someone I've created? Do my denials that the person wasn't based on anyone real count for anything? Write enough and you're bound to create someone who looks or sounds like a real person. For instance, I dare you to try to find a unique name not shared by someone in the real world.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

I believe the applicable principle is If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

If I'm using real people, it's in a positive light. My bad guys are all made up, generally composites of other fictional characters rather than real people.

If you're using current events - well, until the trial and appeals are over, anything negative you write about anyone is potentially basis for legal action. I don't even want to think about the potential harm if a popular series such as Law and Order were to contaminate a jury pool before a trial begins. It just isn't worth it.

Carl Brookins said...

That L&O lawsuit may already be having an effect. I'm aware that some publishers are requiring an elaborate check sheet with page citations to cover such things. I was asked once by an editor whether I had used the names of real people in a short story. since the story was not an other-world fantasy with made-up names the answer of course would be yes. Both first and last were "real" names of "real persons." How could they not be? In one sense it was an unanswerable question. And since all humans have certain unalterable physical characteristics, it would be possible to make a case for any character being lifted from life. If you are going to worry about that, you are going to stop writing. pabrown said it quite well.

Sandra Parshall said...

The real question is whether we use actual events, right down to the small details, and the real people who were involved in those events, portrayed in such detail that they're easily recognizable. One man who complained about L&O pointed out that they even used an actor who looks just like him.

I don't worry about names. Of course no name is unique. If you've never met John Brown from Denver, and nothing in your book bears any resemblance to his life, he can hardly claim you've written about him. I've used the first or last names of friends because they get a kick out of it, and they know ahead of time that I'm doing it. In the book that's coming out early next year, I've used the name of someone who bought character naming rights at a conference. To my knowledge, the character in the book has nothing in common with the real person except the name.

Julia Buckley said...

Very interesting, Sandra! And I agree it's all about how detailed the copycat story is. The point for me is why the "ripped from the headlines" shows have to rely on newspapers for their ideas. There are other ways to generate fiction.

Bo Parker said...

Claiming fiction content has been “ripped from the headlines” has a guaranteed result. It increases the amount of publicity the content will receive. And that is what it is all about. And as long as we equate greater publicity with higher book sales, it will continue. It’s the literary version of the political axiom. “It matters not what they say as long as they get the name (book title) right.”
Bo Parker

Aubrey Hamilton said...

I thought of School Days, a Spenser novel, as a great example when I saw your note about this blog on DorothyL.

I was fascinated by the way Robert Parker combined two separate and well-publicized events into a distinctive mystery some critics consider one of the best of the series.